Warriors' Mike Brown the perfect hire as star-starved Nigeria head to Tokyo

ByColin Udoh ESPN logo
Tuesday, February 11, 2020

In the distant past, securing Olympic qualification at the FIBA World Cup would have been cause for celebration for Nigeria. However, given the national team's appearance at three recent Summer Games, it was the bare minimum expected.

Of course, there was the requisite joy and excitement when the ticket to Tokyo was punched, but those celebrations were somewhat muted due to the lack of top 10 placement.

And therein sits the problem for now-former head coach Alex Nwora, who was replaced by Golden State Warriors' associate head coach Mike Brown earlier this month.

After a breezy qualifying race where Nigeria secured their place at the World Cup well in advance, there were high expectations for an outstanding performance in China, even slim hopes for a podium place.

These hopes were not only based on the NBA and U.S. college talent put together by Nwora and his team, but also actual results on the floor, which came after the team earned itshighest-ever FIBA ranking of seventh.

Instead, at the World Cup proper, Nigeria ended up barely escaping with an Olympic ticket, even with Nwora's son, Louisville's Jordan Nwora, in a starring role. This team could have done better, way better, than failing to make it out of a group featuring an ageing Argentina and an ailing Russia.

There seems to be a thought that Nwora is perhaps not technically experienced enough to take the team further. There were also problems with player management, and things apparently got so bad that it led to a minor locker room mutiny, with players making their own substitution decisions.

There were also allegations, to ESPN by an official close to the team, that a number of players threatened to stay away from the Olympics camp if Nwora remained in charge.

All of that meant that the Nigeria Basketball Federation had to look elsewhere for a head coach who could not only meet but also shatter the limits of that perceived technical deficiency, and keep the players happy.

It's a deficiency that NBBF President Musa Kida referred to at last week's press conference: "Alex has taken us this far, and we are very grateful to him.

"Yes, he was the head coach for D'Tigers going to the World Cup. But we are talking about the Olympics. It is the highest grade of play internationally so we knew that we would need extra hands to build on the successes that we have had with Alex."

To get those extra hands, the NBBF scoured the NBA for coaches, among them Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers and Brown, who was ultimately hired along with Cleveland Cavaliers senior basketball adviser Bernie Bickerstaff.

This, however, is a major reason why Brown was hired: Nigeria wants to attract foreign-born players who will add quality to D'Tigers roster.

NBBF vice president Babs Ogunade told ESPN: "[Brown] has a wealth of experience and is very well-respected.

"What that does for us is that his inclusion helps to attract better players, high-profile players who ordinarily might not want to come and play for us. But because of his pedigree, they will come and play.

"Now he has been announced, you will see the influx of players that will indicate their interest in playing for us."

Among the players expected are Semi Ojeleye of the Boston Celtics, Wes Iwundu of the Orlando Magic, OG Anunoby of the Toronto Raptors, Miye Oni of the Utah Jazz and the biggest prize of all, Victor Oladipo of the Indiana Pacers... assuming he can be convinced to give up his Team USA eligibility after being added to their preliminary list.

Just four of those could dramatically transform D'Tigers into immediate contenders and Brown could play a big role in securing those commitments.

"Mike Brown is going to help and the players will respect him. I know because when I was at Orlando, I played against his team and I know what he brings," says former Nigeria captain Olumide Oyedeji.

In addition, Ogunade says an NBA coach of Brown's calibre adds a certain gravitas to the Nigeria bench in the eyes of the match officials.

He adds: "This is the Olympics. Your coaching crew must command the respect of the officials. Mike Brown is as big as they get."

Nwora remains as associate head coach, and each man has an important role to play.

Kida said: "It's no contest that they will complement each other. Alex, who knows the African terrain and Mike Brown, who is a tested coach in the NBA, and Bickerstaff from the Cleveland Cavaliers.

"For me, it makes a very, very formidable technical crew and we are banking on that for the Olympics."

Any expectations of bad blood had already been doused from the get-go, according to Ogunade: "Nwora was carried along throughout the process, so it is not like this comes as a surprise to him.

"We already arranged a meeting between him and Mike Brown and they are getting along like a house on fire."

Despite the high hopes, Ogunade isn't setting a specific goal for Brown's squad.

"Our concern was to prepare ourselves to be able to compete," he said. "Once we are able to compete, we will take it from there. It's the Olympics, once we are able to compete, everybody will see it."

Blurry target aside, there are some actual conditions involved in the arrangement. Brown will keep his job with the Warriors but would be available to Nigeria for qualifying games and tournaments.

The NBBF also expect that he will pass on his expertise to Nwora and the local coaches, and also help with technical advice for the local league.

It appears to be a fluid arrangement, one which benefits both parties. More to the point, it proves that D'Tigers are not just going to Tokyo to make up the numbers.

The proof of this pudding will be in the eating, but for once, there seems to be one thing that the Nigeria basketball community is in agreement on: the Mike Brown hire is the perfect call.

With the gauntlet thrown, the rest of the field will now have to be wary of D'Tigers.